Living Through Disaster and Rising Up Resilient

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I have no doubt that our 2014 FLASH Annual Conference was one of the best and most memorable of our sixteen years. And it’s not hyperbole to say this, even though; there have been excellent gatherings in the past.

But this year was different.  Across the breadth, talent, and authenticity of the conference contributors, something clicked. And one of the moments it clicked the loudest was when the two leaders from Moore, Oklahoma took the stage for an interview with Jim Cantore of The Weather Channel.

We invited Oklahoma State Rep. Mark McBride and Moore City Councilman Terry Cavnar to share the story of the enactment of the first 135 mph high wind building code in the United States. We looked forward to the firsthand account of how they worked with engineers and pioneered adoption of this new approach derived from the innovative Dual-Objective-Based Tornado Design Philosophy . In the preceding year, we had written more than one piece about their story and celebrated their willingness to debunk old thinking that, “there’s nothing you can affordably build to withstand a tornado.”

So we thought we knew what to expect. But their moving story—so resonant and memorable—didn’t orbit around engineering stronger roof-to-wall connections.

It was a story of humanity.

Councilman Cavnar began by relating his love of Moore as a lifelong resident, a family man, business leader, officer in his church, and member of the City Council. He described the damage that he, his family, friends, customers, and associates suffered on May 20, 2013. Remember, the $2 billion in losses from the EF5 Moore tornado make it the costliest to ever strike Oklahoma. But the human toll was even worse—24 deaths and 230 injuries included 10 children because the tornado struck just as school was letting out.

According to Councilman Cavnar, “There just wasn’t much in my life that wasn’t touched.” As he spoke, we were all transfixed with not a dry eye in the room.

Jim Cantore’s reporting has taken him to ground zero after many devastating storms, and he leveraged his extraordinary experience and sensitivity while sharing details of what he witnessed in Moore, “The difference is that I get to come home. These gentlemen do not.”

Cantore complimented the panelists for their efforts in supporting stronger building codes so that the next storm could turn out differently.

Councilman Cavnar said his town had to learn a hard lesson after suffering through several damaging tornadoes during the past 15 years, including the 200 mph monster that struck last year. “My house had $30,000 of damage, but I had people come in [after the tornado] the next morning with no house, no car, no shoes, no wallet.”

Representative McBride is a homebuilder who has come to understand the benefits of constructing stronger homes. He knows firsthand that better building is more important than granite countertops. “We spend so much time selling granite, selling tile showers, selling this, selling that. But we don’t sell an impact-resistant roof; we don’t sell the hurricane clips; we don’t sell the extra nail patterns you got in the walls,” said McBride. He discussed how homeowners need to ask the right questions to be informed about how their home will perform in a disaster.

Under the landmark code in Moore, for an extra $2 per square foot, new homes should withstand 135 mph winds.

Councilman Cavnar said the repeated pounding by powerful tornadoes during the past 15 years forced residents to band together and demand better building codes, “We were at the point where to do nothing was unacceptable.”

McBride brought reality and levity into the discussion when he recalled how price sensitive the construction industry is, and how builders like his own father resist any extra charges for items such as stronger garage doors, even if they keep out the wind that might otherwise destroy a home. He drove home the point by referring to a garage door company that Councilman Cavnar bought several years ago.

“My dad being a builder, he fired Terry [Cavnar] one time for a $15 increase.”

Councilman Cavnar and Representative McBride’s insights provided a needed reminder that resilience isn’t a lofty idea—resilience is about basic survival and how well you and your neighbors can get back on your feet after the unthinkable happens.

My belief is that when (not if) we permanently, successfully interrupt the cycle of “build-destroy-rebuild” it will be because local leaders like these two stepped up and put a stake in the ground against building practices that lead to death, injury, and community failure.

But to break this cycle, we’ll need to continue to bring together a truly kinetic mix of people, just like them, who leave us inspired and renewed to continue our pursuit of better building with disaster safety and resilience in mind.

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